How The Drug Enforcement Administration Killed A County Program To Police Pot

In 2010, Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman encountered two marijuana-related problems in his jurisdiction. On the one hand, he regularly received 911 calls from neighbors complaining about small marijuana farms emitting an odor reminiscent of skunk at the beginning of the growing season. Even though many of these actors were complying with California and county medical marijuana law, every one of these calls required an investigation that took at least an hour of an officer’s time, with little benefit. On the other hand, illegal farmers were exploiting the vast forest land in Mencodino County to grow huge operations that diverted water from salmon farms, sprayed pesticides, left trash behind, and had firearms on hand. At a county meeting that year, at least 8 citizens stood up to say they had been shot while in the forest. But Allman was hard-pressed to find the resources to police this kind of operation. Allman developed a solution for both, later expanded by the county. But the program, featured on Chicago Public Media’s This American Life this week, died just two years later after a DEA raid.

It all started when the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors passed new rules, known as 9.31, that created a licensing system for allowing streamlined monitoring of marijuana growers. It allowed marijuana farms to grow more plants, if they registered for a license, paid for zip ties on each plant, and paid inspection fees. The costs to the farms totaled about $8,000 per year, but many farmers embraced the plan, including Matt Cohen, who ran a farm known as a model in the community. Northstone Organics, which also grew other produce, cheese and eggs, employed 15 full-time workers, and another 12 seasonally. They earned significant hourly wages, health insurance, and workman’s comp. “I was very excited to have clear regulations,” Cohen told This American Life’s Mary Cuddehe.

In the first two years, the 9.31 program netted the county almost a million dollars, and saved Allman from having to lay five deputies off. Armed with these resources, Allman was ready to go after the big guys.

In the summer of 2011, he undertook what was known as “Operation Full Court Press,” which went after those large illegal farms in the forest. With the help of agents from the DEA, FBI, and surrounding counties, the operation netted over 460,000 marijuana plants, uncovered miles of irrigation piping, man-made dams, and 46,000 pounds of trash. They seized dozens of weapons. It was praised by the U.S. drug czar.


So later that summer, Allman briefed state and federal officials, including U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California Melinda Haag and the FBI supervisor for northern California on 9.31. Allman perceived them as receiving his briefing neutrally, but according to a spokesman, Haag told Allman he was breaking the law.

Two months later, Allman got a call to let him know that federal agents would be raiding Matt Cohen’s property. They showed up at Cohen’s door with machine guns drawn. They handcuffed Matt and his wife on the porch for 8 hours, while they bulldozed all of his marijuana plants, tore apart his house, and seized documents about the county licensing program. The U.S. Attorney never filed charges against Cohen. But the raid had what many perceived as the intended effect: the county ended the program as it was, going back to a version of Allman’s original plan of giving out zip ties for up to 25 plants without the licenses, inspections, or other elements of the original program.

Cohen’s farm is one of several operations considered models for state compliance that have been subject to federal crackdowns. A 2011 raid on a Montana dispensary founded in party by a lobbyist who drafted the state’s law resulted in long prison terms for several owners. And the feds are in continued litigation over an attempted shutdown of Harborside Health Center, an Oakland dispensary so valued by local officials that the city of Oakland became the first jurisdiction to sue the federal government over the crackdown.

Each of these crackdowns suggest the perils of becoming an open, state-compliant operator. But the Northstone Organics raid sheds particular light on how the federal government could approach moves in Washington and Colorado to implement an expanded tax and regulate program for recreational marijuana. In Mendocino County, federal officials ostensibly became aware of Matt Cohen’s program because of the county’s 9.31 program. And they enforced that program by taking down the player that best exemplified its success. In fact, that’s not all they did. Even after the county ended the program, U.S. Attorney Haag subpoenaed all county records pertaining to the program, including the names of everyone who participated. Mendocino County litigated the subpoena for months, aiming to protect the personal medical and financial information contained in those documents. Eventually, they settled that case, and agreed to submit a range of documents with the farmers’ names omitted.

Haag’s spokesman suggested that the sheriff’s program was breaking the law. But even under federal preemption principles, the federal government cannot compel the states to enforce laws. And the sheriff’s program is merely intended to tailor enforcement — not eliminate it.


“Think of it,” Allman told Cuddehe. “Two years ago, people were paying cops 500 dollars a month to come to their house, count the number of marijuana plants, make sure they weren’t stealing water, make sure they weren’t using dangerous environmental practices and they weren’t spilling diesel. I mean what better solution is there than to have this open communication? And we’re not gonna have this anymore.”

The dispensaries, meanwhile, will remain in violation of the federal marijuana prohibition unless Congress amends the Controlled Substances Act. So long as federal prosecutors choose to expend their resources on compliant medical marijuana dispensaries, others like Matt Cohen remain susceptible to crackdowns.